Derek Thompson’s *The Hit Makers*

What makes one song, TV show, or consumer product a hit, and the other not?  Derek’s new book is probably the very best exploration of this question.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I interpret much of his answer in terms of complacency: people want something that appears a bit different, but actually is deeply conservative and keeps them running in place (my take, not exactly his).  In any case, what is the right blend of new and old to captivate an audience?


Here is one good review of the book.  You can buy it here.


'What makes one song, TV show, or consumer product a hit, and the other not?'

Sales figures? Was this a trick question? Because any other answer revolves around matters of taste, or influence. Music is full of examples of people who were not hit makers themselves - think the makers and first players of electric guitars or computer generated music.

'In any case, what is the right blend of new and old to captivate an audience?'

If one considers rock and roll an example of a 'hit,' then the answer is already known, and seems to have little to do with blending old and new - 'Phillips, who died on July 30 in Memphis at the age of 80, is also credited with the line "If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars." Phillips used to say this "over and over," remembers his former secretary and right-hand woman at Sun Records, Marion Keisker, as quoted in Gurlanick’s 1971 collection, Feel Like Going Home: Portraits in Blues and Rock ’n’ Roll. On the surface, you’d have to say this was the ultimate statement of entrepreneurial opportunism. Phillips long disavowed the comment. The New York Times obituary cited a 1978 piece from that paper in which Phillips said, "That quote is an injustice both to the whites and the blacks. I was trying to establish an identity in music, and black and white had nothing to do with it."

But you could say that black and white had everything to do with it. As a white man from Alabama, raised on his father’s farm where he picked cotton, Phillips had always been drawn to black music. When he later recorded black artists like Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, his appraisal was, "This is where the soul of man never dies."

In fact, he got into the record business specifically to record black artists. Besides Wolf and B.B., Phillips also recorded what is often considered the first genuine rock-and-roll record, Jackie Brenston’s 1951 "Rocket ‘88.’" But there was a ceiling on selling blues and R&B by black performers. They just couldn’t break through to a white audience. "They liked the music, but they weren’t sure whether they ought to like it or not," Phillips says of Southern white teenagers in Last Train to Memphis. Elvis was a way to break the color barrier, to bring black music to the rest of America, to give white kids permission to listen to black music — in Guralnick’s words, to "democratize American culture."'

The book largely adheres to your definition of a hit. What it tries to explain is how you go about creating one and why one song sells a lot while one doesn't.

A small quote for Prof. Cowen:

I divide the books Nero Wolfe reads into four grades: A, B, C, and D. If, when he comes down to the office from the plant rooms at six o clock, he picks up his current book and opens to his place before he rings for beer, and if his place was marked with a thin strip of gold, five inches long and an inch wide, which was presented to him some years ago by a grateful client, the book is an A. If he picks up the book before he rings, but his place was marked with a piece of paper, it is a B. If he rings and then picks up the book, and he had dog-eared a page to mark his place, it is a C. If he waits until Fritz has brought the beer and he has poured to pick up the book, and his place was dogeared, it s a D. I haven t kept score, but I would say that of the two hundred or so books he reads in a year not more than five or six get an A. (Rex Stout, Plot It Yourself)

I liked the Nero Wolfe books. Those were good reads. Though I always dog-eared my place.

Nice observation! (partially relevant, at best, comment follows) I wanted to like the Nero Wolfe books, but I stopped reading - even though I wanted the author to do well - when I realized that he did not know what he was talking about when he was talking about orchids. How hard could it have been to care about orchids? Well maybe I missed a good book. Still: Mr. Stout - get the orchids right. You profited off the books. Get the orchids right!. We are indulgent. But please. Common-sense. How hard can it be to get the orchid facts right? They're just orchids! Maybe I started with the wrong book, and Mr Stout got the orchids right in the other books. But I paid good money for a book that was, in large part, about orchids and the author did not really understand orchids. Well I tip bartenders even when they tell me the rail drinks are not that bad. Sometimes they are that bad. That is not the bartender's fault. Well that is no reason not to give the going rate on the tip for the bartender. (Aeneid VI). Cheapness is wrong. Still, cheap or not, why not get the orchids right?

Didn't DK Thompson just review Complacent Class, favorably so?

That would be one hand washing the other? But a quick Google search only showed Thompson hosted TC: "Cowen will be in conversation with Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic" in late February. I'm sure though there's some back scratching and/or mutual admiration from two great minds going on.

A great example of how we are getting complacent. Mutual back scratching and both parties feel they have indeed written a good book, without either party actually writing one.

spy magazine had a column called "logrolling in our time" that paired authors praising each others work.

"... I interpret much of his answer in terms of complacency..."

To a boy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

It's all ball bearings nowadays.

"In any case, what is the right blend of new and old to captivate an audience?"

If entrepreneurs could scientifically figure that out, wouldn't audiences get bored?

In general, Gladwellism is the hope by workers in the vast marketing industry that some smart Science Guy will figure it all out once and for all so they don't have to work so hard anymore coming up with things that are new enough but not too new too entertain and persuade the public.

My guess is that that's a hopeless wish.

Isn't the Edsel an example of what happens when you try to figure out 'what makes a hit'?

Neil Sedaka in particular was famous for "reverse engineering" hit songs, and making his own tweaks. Quite a few were very successful. Paul Anka always complained that Sedaka was "stealing" his songs, but of course Anka didn't have a copyright on catchy songs about pretty girls.

Both men you cite were part of the Brill Building genre. The Brill Building was the original Hit Factory where they'd set up pairs of songwriters in cubicles with pianos. They'd work all day until they turned out hits. Quite the place to start if you want to look at what makes a hit.

The difference between art and science is that science replicates.

I think it's essentially random. Popular phenomenon are exponential positive feedback processes - once a critical number of people start liking something, i.e. once it becomes "cool", more and more people just glom onto it, because everyone wants to be cool and like the latest cool new thing. (One a very small number of people are able to stay ahead of the curve and regularly pick up on trends before they become mainstream, and even fewer are trend-setters.) This is why some songs stand the test of time and others don't. What becomes a "hit" is disconnected from what music actually lasts because "hits" are randomly selected by spontaneous positive feedback. Then you add in that once a musician "makes it" they become a low risk, because people will just buy their music as it is a known commodity. So then you get the same musicians making "hits" year after year, even though they essentially got selected by random chance for some previous work that happened to catch on.

On rare occasions, you have some new music or sound that becomes popular among a trend-setting subcultural group and that eventually becomes popular. This is less random because the trend-setting group gets to decide which music become popular. But that popularity often comes long after the music is originally produced. i.e. The Velvet Underground never had a top 40 hit.

Does anyone think anyone's going to be listening to Justin Beiber in 40 years?

Re the Beebs: depends....most pop music is pretty disposable but if a pop star creates a persona that people will still pay to see decades later, even for nostalgia, then his 10 year old fans today will likely be showing up at the old guy tour in 40 years. There are 1980s pop bands and singers that tour today and get paid by the people who were teenagers then. Now, 100 years later is another story, when all the fans of a disposable pop star are dead their descendants probably won't be listening to the music unless it was actually really good. Remember the Beatles were the original "boy band".

people like pop music of the era that they were in high school

We need to be extremely watchful in how we go about doing everything, as only then we will be able to do well and achieve profits. I do it all nicely and easily through OctaFX. They help me massively with having daily market news update which is available and is free, so is highly effective as well. I really enjoy it so much and make me feel entirely comfortable with doing the work which obviously reflex in the results for me.

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